Violence in Virginia
They came from Maryland, Washington and Virginia and greeted each other by touching thumbs and pinkie fingers, the gang's handshake.
Meting out discipline was apparently on the agenda, according to a law enforcement surveillance video of the meeting reviewed by The Times. Gang members jumped two attendees, knocking them to the ground and kicking them repeatedly in the head and ribs. One target of the beating had failed to back up a fellow MS-13 member in a fight and the other refused to attack a jail inmate who challenged him, investigators believe.
Such sessions, known as "misas," or masses, occur regularly in Virginia, where MS-13 has more than 1,500 members and is the largest, most violent gang in the state.
One of the first indications of MS-13 organizing efforts in the state came in early 1994. Arlington County police caught a Los Angeles member handing out business cards on a street corner. The black card bore the man's gang moniker, "Crazy Snoopy," and linked him to one of the oldest MS-13 branches operating along Western Boulevard. The card gave his Virginia pager number, according to a copy obtained by The Times.
MS-13's involvement in a recent series of high-profile murders in Virginia has thrust it into the headlines in the nation's capital and onto the agenda of top policymakers.
The most sensational crime involved Brenda Paz, the Normandie Locos member. She arrived after the murder near Dallas, was arrested by Virginia police and became an informant. "She knew if she stayed with the gang, she was going to end up locked up or dead," said Hunter, the attorney appointed as Paz's legal guardian.
She was placed in a federal witness protection program, records show, but the pull of the gang proved too strong. In June 2003, she rejoined MS-13 after voluntarily leaving the program. A month later, her tattoo-covered body, slashed with knife wounds, was found on the banks of the Shenandoah River. She was 16 weeks pregnant.
The slaying was ordered because Paz was working with authorities, prosecutors allege. Four MS-13 members are on trial in federal court in Alexandria, Va., charged with her murder. All have pleaded not guilty.
The trial, and hundreds of pages of federal court records in a related murder case, offer a rare inside look at the gang. In one instance, Flores, the Normandie Locos leader imprisoned in Texas, wrote to an MS-13 member jailed in Virginia. He told Denis Rivera, a local gang leader charged in Paz's death, that she was "singing" to authorities, according to a copy of the letter.
In another letter to Rivera, an MS-13 member in El Salvador mentioned a possible "green light," or a murder plan, of a rival and passed on a phone number for a Virginia gang member.
Other communications underscored the defiance of some MS-13 leaders in the face of law enforcement crackdowns. In a letter to yet another gang leader, Rivera boasted about the gang's legacy of fear and violence.
"Wherever the Mara Salvatrucha is, [we are] going to kill, control and rape again," he wrote. "We are super crazy."
Kraul reported from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador. Connell reported from Mexico as well as Houston, Dallas and Laredo and Grand Prairie, Texas. Lopez reported from Mexico; Washington, D.C.; Hyattsville, Md.; and Arlington and Alexandria, Va. Times researchers Vicki Gallay and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.